Orlando Woolridge dead at 52

Orlando Woolridge, the rugged forward who carved out a reputation over 13 NBA seasons as a scoring specialist and one of the original alley-oop artists, died late Thursday at his parents' home in Mansfield, La. He was 52.

DeSoto Parish Chief Deputy Coroner Billy Locke said Woolridge died while under hospice care for a chronic heart condition.

"He's been sick for quite a while, about a year," Woolridge's mother, Mattie Woolridge, told ESPNChicago.com's Melissa Isaacson. "During that time, he has had two heart attacks and he couldn't hold a job because of his heart.

"He did a lot of fishing, which he loved and throwing that rod and reel would help, but he was so miserable, it was best. His heart wasn't beating at an adequate speed so therefore he was short-winded, but he was a good guy. He said 'Mom, I thought I'd live at least 'til 55.' "

The 6-foot-9 Woolridge was the sixth overall pick by the Chicago Bulls in 1981 after starring at Notre Dame in college and Mansfield High School in Louisiana.

Known for his high-flying dunks and ability to throw down lob passes in the open court, Woolridge played for the Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Denver, Milwaukee and Detroit, and also coached the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA. He averaged 16.0 points in just more than 28 minutes per game, quickly emerging as an offensive spark plug no matter if he was in the starting lineup or coming off the bench.

"I just love it when we go up in the transition game, up and down the court, Magic [Johnson] looking for the open guy," Woolridge told Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn shortly after joining the team in 1988. "I get excited when we start playing like that. That's the way I love playing."

He participated in one of the greatest slam dunk contests of all time in 1985, competing against Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins and Julius Erving, among others, and he averaged 22.9 points per game for the Bulls in 1984-85, the last player to lead Chicago in scoring before Jordan took over.

"He was a good person," said Timberwolves assistant T.R. Dunn, who played with Woolridge for one season in Denver. "He was a really good offensive player, athletic, could run the floor, score the basketball. He had a pretty solid career. Just a fun-loving, athletic guy. Just sad news."

Woolridge was suspended for violating the league's substance abuse policy in 1987 and spent time in a treatment facility.

"Obviously, he was very, very talented," Chicago Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson told Isaacson. "He had strength and athleticism as a player. When we played together at Notre Dame, with his athleticism, as a point guard I always felt I could throw the ball anywhere near the rim and he was able to catch it and do something with it.

"It's just a sad story because at his core, Orlando was a good guy who liked to laugh and have fun, but everyone knows the demons he battled throughout his life. We're all human beings, all have weaknesses but he still had a very, very good career. He was a very talented guy."

Woolridge returned from his suspension to play eight more seasons in the league, his last with the Sixers in 1993-94. A scorer to the end, he averaged 12.7 points per game in 26 minutes during his final season.

"He was such an energetic-type, big player," said Wolves assistant Jack Sikma, who played against Woolridge. "He really was one of the early athletic-type players to come in the league, where we see a lot more of that now."

During his time playing for the Bulls, Woolridge became close friends with Gale Sayers, a Hall of Fame running back for the Chicago Bears.
Sayers, and his wife Ardie, are the godparents of Woolridge's three children; Zachary, Renaldo and Tiana.

"When you lose a family member, it's one of those things where it's going to be tough and it's going to be tough for a long time," Gale Sayers told ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin.

Added Ardie Sayers: "We just became like a second family. We love the kids, we'll continue to be there for them. ... They're wonderful kids and he was very proud of his children."

After ending his NBA career, Woolridge spent his final two seasons playing professionally in Italy.

One of Woolridge's defining moments came as a senior at Notre Dame in 1981, when he hit a buzzer-beating jumper to beat Ralph Sampson and No. 1 Virginia on national television, ending the mighty Cavaliers' 28-game winning streak. Woolridge averaged 10.6 points in 109 games at Notre Dame, helping the Fighting Irish reach the NCAA tournament in each of his four seasons, including the Final Four as a freshman in 1978.

Woolridge is survived by his three children, Zachary, Renaldo and Tiana; by his parents, Mattie and Larnceen; his sister, Dr. Vanessa Woolridge Duplessis; his brother-in-law, Darren Duplessis; and his nephew, Nigel Duplessis.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.